Jamie A. Thom reached out to me recently with a fantastic letter, and kindly let me post it here for everyone. He talks about something I think a lot of us have experienced - having enough natural ability to coast through easy work, but falling far short of potential because of it. He shook out of it by taking a lot of action and throwing himself into the deep end of getting married, working internationally, and taking on some huge projects.
Pretty inspirational stuff. Here's Jamie -
Laziness - The Enemy of Victory
I am finally stepping out of the (more than 900 by now!) crowd of regular readers to get in touch and say "hello". First may I say how much I've been enjoying your blog over the past few months, I believe I first stumbled across you after reading your comment on a Less Wrong post about why humans are not automatically strategic. My only previous contact with you was a brief comment on your post about books worth reading to get started on Japanese history, I am currently reading Musashi as a result and am enjoying it very much - many thanks for those recommendations.
Justin Mares was very cool to transcribe all of "Anticipating the Future" -- thanks Justin! Full transcript follows (about 8000 words, so pretty intense...)
Lectures on Strategy # 1 - Anticipating the Future
So Cassius says: “Then if we lose this battle, you are contented to be led in triumph to the streets of Rome?”
And Brutus said: “No, Cassius, no. Think not, thou noble Roman, that ever Brutus will go bound to Rome. He bears too great a mind. But this same day must end that work the ides of March begun. And whether we shall meet again I know not. Therefore our everlasting farewell take. Forever and forever farewell, Cassius. If we do meet again, why, we shall smile. If not, why then this parting was well made.
Cassius: Forever and forever farewell, Brutus. If we do meet again, we’ll smile indeed. If not, ’tis true this parting was well made.
Brutus: Why then, lead on. Oh, that a man might know the end of this day’s business ‘ere it comes! But it suffices that the day will end, and then the end is known.—Come, ho! Away!
That line always got me, “the end of this day’s business ‘ere it comes — Oh, that a man might know the end of this day’s business ‘ere it comes! But it suffices that the day will end, and then the end is known.
So, I want to talk about anticipating the future with you guys, because I think it’s very possible to do with a little bit of background in history, and a little bit of background on statistics and maybe a little background on Shakespeare. Cassius and Brutus are about to get their asses kicked by Augustus Caesar and they decided beforehand that they’re going to die they’re not going to be lead back in chains to Rome where they lost. They’re thinking they’re going to loste but they’re not sure. They’re not sure. And so Brutus says well if we could know beforehand if we could win or lose, that would be great. But I guess, after we’ve won or lost we’ll know and that’s enough.
So, it’s kind of obvious why you’d want to have an anticipation of the future. It has a huge impact on just about all the material world, from art to commerce, love, work, politics, relationships. But it’s amazing to me the most people actually don’t spend any time at all learning how to predict the future, how to conceptualize what could happen and to do things based on them. For people who are not too concerned with the material world, I’ll say that I think, being able to analyze and anticipate the future has a huge impact even on a kind of spiritual concept like philosophy. You know right now there are books that were the masterworks of past civilizations kind of rotting in library basements, kind of been officially or unofficially banished back to the stacks. And there are things right now that are in vogue that would be just seen as nonsense in ten years, in fifty years in a hundred years.
So, I think everyone should have a healthy kind of respect for the fact that the future is coming and you can somewhat anticipate it, you can play around, you can take action based on it. Practically speaking if you could know the future, you could order your affairs better, you could build around the future or help change it more to the kind of future you want.
I think to know the future you’ve got to start with the present and the past. In the present, cause happens and effects follow in the future. But what do you know, how do you know what effect the cause will have? And I think you look to the past to tell you that. I think you look to history to tell you that. It’s pretty simple, we know when we mix this chemical with that chemical it’s been done a thousand times. If they’re the standard solution and nothing crazy is happening, you’ll get whatever this compound or they’ll mix or they won’t mix. We know that and we can anticipate that that will happen because it’s been done a lot. So because chemicals have been mixed a lot by chemists and chemists are pretty thorough about taking notes and being studious about it, we can know that if we mix these chemicals together then something will happen. They used to not know that. When a lot of the modern cleaning products started coming out, right around the industrial revolution, after that modern chemists thought that you could mix two kinds of soaps together and the result would be toxic. Now even to this day, even though most soaps would be safe to mix there’s still this big cultural taboo based in North America – Do not ever mix different cleaning products together, it could be toxic. So when you have innovation, when you have things that are new on the scene, when there’s not a lot of history behind it, it’s dangerous when they mix. When they combined people don’t know what’s going to happen.
Now I feel like the attitude that people take towards humanity’s affairs, whether it be on the large scale with something like international finance and war, politics or even in an individual scale like relationship and child rearing, relationships you have with family and friends. I feel like people treat this kind of the way they treat brand new invented chemicals. They see them as dangerous and they don’t want to mix them and see what happens. They don’t really even think it’s possible to know anything about what happens after that. Because they don’t do that they never know what’s safe and what’s not safe. They never take chemicals that would be dangerous off the market, which you could do if you look back at history you could see, what are the kinds of things in my life that are toxic and dangerous and you could cut those out. By looking back in the past you can get an idea, even if you weren’t entirely sure if an action you took in the present, what would happen in the future. If it was miserable you can get rid of that kind of bleach or that kind of soap. I think it’s very, very, very practical to take a look at the material world and to try to remove the toxic elements of it by studying what could happen and what the effect would be in any given cause.
It’s kind of a radical idea here, it’s an important idea. I’m just talking we’re going to cover a lot of ground, the basic theme is I want to help you anticipate the future. I’m a historian. I’m a statistician. I’m a strategist, I read a lot. I’ve done a little bit of experimentation, this and that. I’ve talked to a lot of smart people. I learned from a lot of smart people and a lot of great thinkers.
Take what you will from this. I hope everybody here just picks up one thing they can use. Don’t worry about the facts, there are a lot of things going on. But this one is kind of interesting; I think the future is largely, largely, largely determined by mutually held beliefs on what’s going to happen in the future. I’m not saying that what people think is going to happen is what’s going to happen but I’m saying the future is created by actions in the present. Actions in the present are determined in what people think are going to happen in the future, right? So mutually held beliefs in the future create present actions. I think that’s kind of the important one. Mutually held beliefs in the future create present actions. It doesn’t create the future that people think is going to happen. People thought tech stocks are going to go up forever. So they bought and bought and bought and bought and people responding to rational incentives just started putting a .com at the end of anything they stopped worrying about revenues. Things got crazy, we had a big crash. Following the crash there were counter measures taken against it. That lead to another crash and you know and here we are in the present.
The belief that stocks were going to go up forever, we’ve entered into a brave new world, right? Like, we’ve lead people to just buy tech, buy tech, buy tech which led people to just invest in asinine things. Then there is kind of a cyclical effect from now. When you know this you could either play on or play against it. Contrary to some people’s belief, I don’t think that most of the world’s politicians and leaders are stupid. Just the opposite I think most of them are incredibly savvy and intelligent.
I want you to hold on to that notion of mutually held beliefs in the future creating the present. We’ll get back in a moment to the very important point. Again, to understand the future you really got to understand the past. There are so many quotes about history repeating itself. Nobody gets it. Whenever we deal with unknown forces, when were mixing two thing together and there is nothing quite like it. I think what you have to do is look for historical comparables. It blows my mind that nobody does this. Nobody does this. Basically, nobody does this. Warren Buffett does this. Warren Buffett’s most recommended book, which he says is the best book on finance ever written which was the ‘Intelligent Investor by Ben Graham’ says to do this. But nobody bothers, everybody looks at things and says they’re so new, they’re so crazy, they’re so different that we don’t have any comparable. I think we do. I think the rate of international acceleration and open borders was exactly what was happening after the industrial revolution and before world war one where telegraphs were coming online and trains were coming online and messages could be sent and faster ships started coming along. I think you could look at those and see what disruptive changes are going to happen and warfare in government communication and diplomacy. I think it’s a pretty good model of things.
People look at the tech boom and they say this has never happened before. Well, I think just the opposite. Canals and railroads were extremely, extremely, extremely overbuilt in the early 1900’s. People just got really excited. About something that really was marvellous it really was changing the world. Engineering improved tremendously. The availability of power came way up; the availability of energy came way up; the cost came way down. Instead of building canals all over the place, they were like building canals from a swamp to a swamp that no boats were going to go. And of course all those malinvestments lost their money. The people had bet their lives on them and did that at the very bad time just like the tech crash years later.
People don’t study history. I think this applies from the individual level to kind of the grand level. If you want to understand what makes an economy industrialized you should study history. If you want to understand what makes a nation rise and fall you study history and you will find as many comparables situation as you can understand. There’s no perfect comparables. There’s no perfect comparables, so you just want to mark what’s comparable and what isn’t. Is the leadership based of a nation consolidated very heavily in the hands of one person or another? What’s the relationship between the leadership of this person and another person? What’s the terrain like? Which side has better communications? A very simple analysis you can do in any hostile situation is which side has better communications. Generally speaking all else being equal, you always want to bet on the side that has better communications than the other side. Hannibal Barca had really just amazing supply chain logistics, scouting, spoke like fifteen languages himself, and really was just able to connect with many different people. Many, many different ethnicity really welded together core of just people all over the world to go fight Rome. Even getting some of the Roman Italians to defect against the Romans. Until finally Scipio Africanus, the son and nephew of two slain Roman generals comes up conquers Spain, storms New Carthage and Spain breaks it. Scipio understood the value of communication. He understood that their armies, which way out numbered him, were too far away for Carthage’s defensive messengers to go get them. He was able to quickly take their most important city in Europe and then hold its very strong defences. They just hit it by surprise and that broke their communication lines. And from there he sent their envoys and diplomats to Africa. Scipio was the first person to have better communications than Hannibal and he’s the one that eventually won.
Napoleon had much better communications. Napoleon had much, much better communications than all of the crusty old monarchies with their kind of formal diplomacy and decorum and things. Until he finally ran up against Wellington and his bankers, like Nathaniel Rothschild backed Wellington. So they were able to send messages back and from between Spain with code and the postal express and the fast cars that were owned by the banking gents. So then inevitably and then finally Napoleon lost.
You can look at events like this and you can use them. You can use them to determine what you think is going to happen. If you are going to bet for or against them is there is a power struggle. Is this company going to get bought or is going to get sold. So that’s interesting.
One thing that I want to... I want to address this with the right amount of gravity. I don’t want to stay cavalier. It’s a statement that if it was said cavalier will be a little bit off. But if it’s said a little bit too solemnly it would be kind of ridiculous. I think to understand society at large; again belief in the future held in mass creates the present action. I think to understand society at large and where society is going you have to understand fear. You really have to understand fear.
Let’s go back to a different play by Shakespeare. You probably heard the story of this one but not a lot of people have analyzed the latter part of it which I think is more interesting.
“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
It must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied over with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.--Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered.”
So, “And makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all”, he’s saying conscience there he’s not using conscience the way we normally would. He’s saying kind of a... anticipating that things could be worse, or fearing things could be worse, negative anticipation. Its what’s stops us from taking action that could make things different. Hamlet here his life is just a mess. He’s thinking about killing himself, “To die, to sleep: perchance to dream”. And he’s like, but wait what if it’s worse, this sucks but what if it’s worse. And that fear stops Hamlet from killing himself and then you know he goes on to have more adventures. It’s a good play.